Not Assuming You Know Birds

Mallard Pair (Buddy Attick Lake)
Mallard Pair at Buddy Attick Lake (Nancie Waterman)

If pressed, I would say that I am an intermediate birder. I can successfully identify the common birds, as well as most of the regular migrants and less common birds, that might wander through my area. I’ve also seen some less common and rare birds, around here and in other places, that I would recognize again. Basically, when it comes to identifying birds, I know enough to be dangerous, not in a lethal kind of way, but in that way of assuming I know something that can lead me wrong. Sometimes you just don’t know what you don’t know. And that is where you make mistakes . . .

Mallards at Lake Allen
Mallards at Lake Allen Patuxent Wildlife Research Refuge (Jim Waterman)

For example, I know Mallards. In my area, as well as many areas in the US, Mallards are ubiquitous. It seems like if you have a bit of water someplace, there is likely to be a Mallard nearby, usually at least one pair. I can identify them. When we go birding, I can glance at them and check off Mallard. Easy peazy.

But not so fast. If you think you “know” a bird and don’t give it a little more time, you might goof or miss something really interesting. Look too fast and you might miss that that “Mallard” you casually identified off at the other side of the lake is actually a Northern Shoveler. Or that what you think is a female Mallard is actually an American Black Duck.

Mallards at Font Hill Wetlands Park
Mallards at Font Hill Wetlands Park. (Nancie Waterman)

Even when you get the species right, you might still get tangled up. Jim and I did this with Mallards on one local birding trip late last August. We were birding in a small local park in the Ellicott City area where we came upon a small pond where people fish. Walking up to one of the low platforms along the water, a flock of Mallards in the water spotted us and immediately swam right over to us, probably hoping we would feed them.

So they were close. How could we get the id wrong? But we noticed that something was weird about this group of birds. It appeared to be all females. It was a fairly big group, so that didn’t seem right. Surely the lady birds hadn’t decided to exile all the males. Where were they?

Look at the Differences on These Mallard Bills.
Look at the Differences on These Mallard Bills.

So we started to question our id. Maybe they weren’t Mallards? Could they be American Black Ducks? No. The coloring wasn’t right. They had white tail feathers. Where we could see the speculum feathers on their sides, they were blue with white borders. They were Mallards.

It took us a little while, but we finally started to notice small differences among the birds. At least two of the “females” were actually males molting out of eclipse plumage (like the one on the left above.) They weren’t showing off the distinctive male Mallard coloring we typically see. What finally clued us in was that the males’ beaks were still all yellow, while the females were their more typical dirty orange. Once we saw that, we started noticing other subtle color differences in the feathers. Maybe a little tinge of green in the head after all? Yep, there were males in the group and we had been looking right at them all the time.

Mallards at Font Hill Wetlands Park (Nancie Waterman)
Mallards at Font Hill Wetlands Park (Nancie Waterman)

Researching Mallards when we got back home, I learned that the males typically molt all their flight feathers right around that time. Because this results in their not being able to fly, molting male Mallards become very reclusive and tend to retreat to more secluded areas where they feel more safe. Most of the ducks in the flock we saw did indeed seem to be females, as well as some immature birds that look very like the adult females, but there were at least two adult males. The park where we saw them is fairly quiet and at least those two males apparently stuck with the females, at least on that day.

A Hybrid Mallard with a Regular Mallard
On the Left Appears to be a Hybrid Mallard with a Regular Mallard on his Right at Chesapeake Bay Environmental Center.  (Jim Waterman)

What that experience taught me is that I shouldn’t assume that a bird that I “know” is always going to look the way I expect. They molt. Younger birds might look different than adult birds. Individual birds might have a genetic difference. A bird might be the result of two different species interbreeding (as the bird on the left above seems to have been.) Or it might even be that the available light makes a bird’s coloring look different or that you just can’t see a distinguishing characteristic from a distance. And there could also be a similar looking bird of another species hanging out with the flock. There are all kinds of reasons to pay more attention to the common birds that you already know . . . or think you know!

As I learn more and more about birds, I have also learned to appreciate all that I don’t yet know about even the common birds around me, whether it is differences in how they look or different behaviors. Although I’ve learned a lot about birds, I still have a lot to learn. And isn’t that fantastic?

Nancie

Learn More

All About Birds Mallard Pages 

Ducks Unlimited Duck Molting Article

Washington Post Mallard Plumage Brief Article Showing Variations

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